Fresh starts are hard, especially when you have your schedule down to a science of sorts. Running a busy Chabad house, on many days we feel like chickens without heads. We spend our days juggling personal davening and learning, visiting Jews in need at hospitals and nursing homes, meeting with professionals as we seek to grow the funding and activities, keeping up with our children and their many needs, learning Torah with Jews throughout the day, writing articles for various publications, guiding souls yearning for spiritual nourishment, dealing with the expected unexpected matters that arise on the frontier, and so much more.
With all that’s on the regular plate of shluchim, it’s hard to take the time necessary to expand the programming and to keep up with the growth of our community, as Bozeman has doubled in size since we arrived in 2007. These very long days and nights become even more challenging when our Chabad family encounters a tragedy. Last week, my yeshiva roommate and dear friend Rabbi Asher Federman and his family of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands experienced an unfathomable tragedy when their baby daughter drowned, R’l, and [as of this writing] Henya, mother of 13, is in a coma in critical condition.
A family of light experienced such darkness and it’s so close to home that I walked around for three days in a daze. I couldn’t breathe, it hurt so much, and I wondered where I’d get the energy and enthusiasm to march on. I knew I wanted to fight for a bright future, but with life so fragile, I didn’t know if I had what it took to make it happen.
In this week’s parashah, Vayishlach, we read about Jacob encountering his long-lost twin brother Esau. Before the encounter, Yaakov asks G-d to protect him from Esau’s wrath and says, “Katonti—I have become small from all the kindnesses and from all the truth that You have rendered Your servant, for with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.” Yaakov Avinu teaches us something foundational about humility and gratitude. Rashi explains that Yaakov was so profoundly grateful to Hashem for all that He had already done for him while traversing the diaspora, including the decades in Lavan’s home, that he was worried that perhaps his merits had been diminished as a result of G-d’s immense kindness for him, and that occasional sinfulness may have sullied his record, making him vulnerable to Esau’s lingering anger over the blessings that Yaakov had taken from him decades earlier.
It’s such an important concept to internalize because we all want miracles, but what about daily gratitude for the “miracles that Hashem does for us each day,” as we say in Modim? When I ache for a friend or relative, it really hurts, and I hate being reminded of my mortality. Yet, these moments of pain are also incredible moments of clarity in which we get to pause and thank G-d for all that we do have and all our blessings. How often do I come home tired, cranky, or hungry and let out my personal state of being on my beautiful children or Chavie? Why don’t I walk in, leave my important work at the door, and remember that on the other side of the door exists an incredible group of people called family who love me with every fiber of their being and yearn to spend quality time with me? Why does my gratitude come to the forefront when a tragedy hits and not on a regular freezing Wednesday in Bozeman?
We wait for miracles because we are denying the miracles before us. Yaakov appreciated the miracles of life that he experienced each day.
Yaakov Avinu had it rough. Lavan, his employer (and father-in-law), was a cheater par excellence. After leaving home, Yaakov never got to see his mother Rivka again. Esau is still out to get him. He will live to see his son Joseph disappear and spend two decades thinking that his beloved son is dead. He lives to see his daughter Dinah raped, and his sons executing vigilante justice and embarrassing the family’s name. He watched his first love, Rachel, die in his presence as she was giving birth to her second child, Binyamin. It was so much for one fellow to endure, and yet he focused on the fact that G-d had done so much for him, and he was filled with so much gratitude, that all he could do was beseech G-d to go above and beyond for him despite his firm belief that he didn’t deserve it.
As Divine Providence had it, this past Shabbos we were going to host a Friday Night Live, one of four this year. It’s a year of Hakhel, a year in which, during the time of the Holy Temple, all Jews would gather to hear the king of Israel teach Torah in Jerusalem. It was a year that emphasized Jewish unity, and the Rebbe, zt’l, encouraged us to utilize this year, even in galus, to add opportunities for Jews to get together to celebrate their Jewishness. So, we decided that although we host many people around our Shabbos table each week, we would set aside a few Shabbosos this year to arrange a big Shabbos dinner at the shul so that we could include more than the 20 people who can fit into our dining room at home.
Indeed, Friday Night Live was so warm and special. Thirty-two Yidden joined for Kabbalas Shabbos and the seudah. We sang niggunim, shared Torah inspiration and stories, said l’chaim, and enjoyed an amazing dinner courtesy of Chavie. At one table sat our family with two local American doctors and two Israelis who work at the mall in Bozeman. At another table was an elderly couple who just moved to town, a young family with two kids, and an 86-year-old Jewish opera singer and her great-grandchild. At the third table sat a prominent local architect, a prestigious OBGYN and his wife, a local CPA, and a world-renowned consultant who moved here from Chicago. Seated at the fourth table was a retired army ranger who served in Iraq, a Moroccan Jewish woman and her daughter, a local state farm lobbyist, and a yoga instructor who was commemorating her father’s yahrzeit. The collection of Jews was magnificent, and I know that Hashem was smiling from His heavenly abode.
I was on a personal high, because, as I said, starting new programs is hard, but when it gets done and you see the results in real time, it’s uplifting and inspiring. It keeps me fresh and young. This coming Friday, the 15th of Kislev, I am turning 41. It’s a day for internal reflection, a time to think about my next year and what I will do better and differently. One thing is certain—I will not let my friend’s tragedy break me but will find my inner reservoir and ignite it; I will express my gratitude to Hashem and seek ways to make my 42nd year one to remember.
Rabbi Chaim Bruk is co-CEO of Chabad Lubavitch of Montana and spiritual leader of The Shul of Bozeman. For comments or to partner in our holy work, e-mail email@example.com or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.